All content authored by Fred Zaspel > Copyright Fred Zaspel
Has The Church Replaced Israel? A Theological Evaluation
B&H Academic, 2010
by Michael J. Vlach
by Fred G. Zaspel
The question of the relation of Israel and the church is a perennial one, and in these days of increased attention to biblical theology and the relation of the Testaments the question is raised with new interest. It is an “in-house” discussion for Evangelicals but a telling one, freighted with extensive hermeneutical and eschatological implications that divide schools of thought and that each new generation must explore for itself. Michael J. Vlach’s new title, Has the Church Replaced Israel, is one of the latest contributions to this on-going conversation.
Vlach sets out to answer his question with a resounding “No!” The church has not replaced Israel, he argues, and this negative posture characterizes the book overall - it might well have been subtitled, “The Case Against Supersessionism.” But this negative posture reflects the nature of the argument and not Vlach’s tone, which is consistently irenic and dispassionately “academic,” not polemic.
Vlach’s overall argument attempts, first, to discredit the many arguments advanced in favor of supersessionism (the doctrine that the church supersedes or replaces Israel), and then to present his own case (briefly) for the continuing validity of the promises for national Israel. The book unfolds in four steps. First he lays the groundwork with a clear presentation of the question itself and the alternative answers that have been offered. He acknowledges the ways that supersessionism is nuanced among various interpreters and establishes a broad overview of the differing positions and the issues between them. The question is clearly established and fairly represented. Part two very helpfully traces the question of supersession in church history, part three explores supersessionist hermeneutics, and part four its theological arguments.
Vlach contends that in order to sustain the position that the church replaces (or supersedes or fulfills) Israel the supersessionist must 1) explain how unconditional promises and covenants given to national Israel could be fulfilled, in the end, apart from national Israel; 2) establish that the church is the new Israel; and 3) demonstrate that the church inherits Israel’s covenants and promises in such a way that excludes national Israel from inheriting the same. Few would deny that on an Old Testament reading national Israel was promised a glorious future. Thus, in short, it is not enough for the supersessionist to show that there is some connection, similarity, shared blessing, theological correspondence, etc., between Israel and the church. To maintain their position the supersessionist must show that the church realizes these covenants and blessings and that national Israel will not - that the case is not both-and but either-or.
It is said that he who shapes the question wins the debate, but Vlach’s challenge is a fair one, and it advances the discussion beyond the superficial arguments that have too often marked this discussion. Vlach does not deny that there is a theological correspondence - perhaps even a typological relationship - between Israel and the church. He affirms that the church is the seed of Abraham, that the church bears descriptive titles identical to those of Israel, and that the church has been brought in to share in blessings promised to Israel. And he is happy to acknowledge (if rightly defined) the interpretive priority of the New Testament. His contention cuts to the chase: how do these factors exclude national Israel from the promises so repeatedly given her?
Moreover, once it is established that the church is in some way related to Israel and that she inherits blessings promised to Israel, Vlach contends, the authorial intent of the Old Testament prophets must still be given due weight. Again, Vlach will acknowledge the New Testament inclusion of Gentiles and the church’s privileged Israel-like position. But he does not allow that these considerations require a “re-interpretation” of the Prophets or a fulfillment of their promises that excludes the very Israel to whom those promises were made.
Vlach then works his way through the various arguments advanced by supersessionists, examining such debated passages as Acts 15:15-18; Romans 9:6, 24-26; 11:26; Galatians 6:16; Ephesians 2:11-22; and 1 Peter 2:9-10. Space does not allow a review of his arguments here. His treatments are relatively brief, but they are to the point, focusing on determinative questions and providing exegetical argument that supersessionists will need to consider.
Finally, Vlach provides a positive argument for a future for national Israel. He stresses first the presence of national entities in the eschaton, and he reasons that if this much can be acknowledged by supersessionists, such as Hoekema, the more extensive evidence for Israel’s place in the eschaton should not be difficult to understand similarly.
It is important for Vlach also to stress that the New Testament is not silent (as supersessionists have often contended) on the question of Israel’s future. And so he points to such passages as Romans 9-11, Matthew 19:28, and Acts 1:6. As John Murray pointed out a generation ago, Jesus did not only say to Israel, “Your house is left unto you desolate”; he also said, “You will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he!” (Matt. 23:38-39). That passages such as this and Romans 9-11 indicate a future conversion of Israel is increasingly acknowledged among supersessionists, and for Vlach it is then a small step to see that if, for example, the apostle Paul can ground this hope in the New Covenant promise (Rom. 11:27) he also sees Israel taking her place among the nations in the eschaton as that same New Covenant promise indicates (Jer. 31, Ezek. 36).
Vlach does not argue for a separate future for Israel and the church, as did the older dispensationalists. He argues for recognizing distinction within unity, Israel among the one people of God. Only this, he contends, does justice to all considerations in the debate.
In all this Vlach presents his argument simply, respectfully, and well. He progresses methodically and in a straightforward manner, and most will find its 228 pages an easy read. The book reflects a clear understanding, on Vlach’s part, of the alternative approaches he critiques. His “negative” approach - answering the arguments advanced by supersessionists - requires that he grasps “the other sides” well, and no one will doubt that he interacts not with straw men but with the real issues pertinent to the debate. The strength of Vlach’s critiques and positive arguments lie in the fact that they do not rest on dispensationalist presuppositions - his approach is refreshingly exegetical.
It is difficult to imagine anyone writing “the final word” on this subject. It is a complex question, and the debate is likely to be with us until we all know better. But Vlach’s work has sharpened the focus and advanced the discussion, and thus it deserves a hearing.